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Classroom playbook for constructive dialogue

Institute's materials help teachers support students as they learn to talk across differences with constructive dialogue techniques.

5 min read


constructive dialogue institute classroom

Constructive Dialogue Institute

A political division among Americans that became stark and often verbally abusive during the 2016 campaign for US president shifted from social media into workplaces and even schools. Teachers needed to make a concerted effort to teach students how to “disagree without being disagreeable.” 

diane benson harrington

A year ago, many teachers were rejoicing the return to classrooms after pandemic shutdowns, but the solitary time away had stripped many students of their social skills. Teachers doubled down on their efforts toward civil classroom conversation.  

Sixty percent of college students in one study said they’d hesitate to discuss controversial topics on campus, while legislatures in at least two dozen states have passed or introduced bills prohibiting teachers from discussing “divisive” concepts in class.

Making room for constructive dialogue

In the midst of this, in 2017, social psychologist and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt and researcher and businesswoman Caroline Mehl created the Constructive Dialogue Institute to address the inability of people to agree on facts, listen to one another’s views, think critically and find compromise. Their psychology-based Perspectives program designed for high-school and university educators to use with students is free, and the organization has since expanded to work with companies, nonprofits, local governments and religious groups. Now, the Constructive Dialogue Institute is releasing a Playbook that offers educators five strategies and corresponding resources to encourage more thoughtful dialogue.

“I think constructive dialogue ultimately, is about creating space to connect with people,” CDI Education Director Jake Fay tells SmartBrief.

The Playbook helps teachers explain and reinforce key aspects of constructive dialogue:

  1. Letting go of winning.
  2. Sharing your story and inviting others to do the same.
  3. Asking questions to understand.
  4. Acknowledging others’ emotions. 
  5. Seeking common ground when possible.

It explains how educators can create resilient classroom norms, model and practice asking questions, make thinking “visible” in the classroom, develop a culture where students can “talk about talking” and teach with stories. 

Supporting students through challenging conversations

“The five tools in our Playbook are really meant to be familiar yet different practices that educators can use in their classroom,” Fay says.

The online Perspectives program features customizable teaching strategies; eight, interactive online lessons; conversation guides; classroom exercises; automated email reminders; and quizzes, Fay says. Educators can slot the lessons into existing curricula, whether in English, history or other classes. 

“The classroom is a place where we have a chance to learn from those who are different from us, and yet, it can feel difficult and challenging. So we need we need more support. We need more guidance. We need to set some expectations early in our classrooms for how to have those conversations,” Fay says. 

Perspectives offers guidelines and boundaries and helps teachers reinforce skills and mindsets with students so that “students who really maybe didn’t know that they could talk and interact with people who think very differently are able to have productive conversations and learn about how each other understand some of the big, challenging problems in the world and why those issues matter to them,” Fay says.

“When they do that, it opens up different possibilities for conversation.” 

Participants report success

CDI’s recent randomized, controlled trial of 775 students at three colleges and universities shows success with the program. Nearly three-quarters of students showed a decrease in polarization, and more than half said they could better recognize the limits of their own knowledge, were less likely to negatively attack others and were less likely to negatively evade others during conflict. In follow-up contact with more than 35,000 students as long as six months after the program, 86% say they are better at communicating with people who have differing views. 

“Social media right now doesn’t model civil and productive discourse for students. [Perspectives] provides them with the tools and resources they need in order to change the tone of the dialogue,” a New York high-school history teacher said in an exit slip with CDI, adding that more students now are able to have “meaningful conversations with those who possess different and contrasting viewpoints.”

CDI’s research suggests that the program “is equally effective for learners across the political spectrum and across other demographics like race and gender. We saw similar effects in the outcomes of the program for liberals, moderate and conservative-identifying students,” Fay says.

A trickle-out effect

The program is different from those like the popular Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which focuses on climate intervention in schools. “That’s not what we are. We don’t prescribe, like, here’s what you should do if a student says X or anything like that. We basically create materials that are useful for teachers to try to create cultures and climates in their classroom where students can talk across differences,” Fay says.

Students have told CDI that they often use the techniques outside of the classroom and even in their home lives, Fay says. 

“The more that we use tools like this and the more that we pay attention to the importance of, not endorsing views that we don’t believe in but at least being able to try to understand them and interact with the people that hold them differently than we do right now,” then the more likely that society hasn’t reached the point of no return, Fay insists. 

Diane Benson Harrington is an education writer at SmartBrief. Reach out to her via email, Twitter or LinkedIn


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